Nightmare at 20,000 Feet
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"Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" is episode 123 of the American television anthology series The Twilight Zone, based on the short story of the same name by Richard Matheson, first published in Alone by Night (1961). It originally aired on October 11, 1963 and is one of the most well-known and frequently referenced episodes of the series. The story follows the only passenger on an airline flight to notice a hideous creature lurking outside the plane.
|"Nightmare at 20,000 Feet"|
|The Twilight Zone episode|
|Episode no.||Season 5|
|Directed by||Richard Donner|
|Written by||Richard Matheson |
(from his story, first published in Alone by Night, 1961)
|Featured music||Stock from "King Nine Will Not Return" and "The Rip Van Winkle Caper"|
|Original air date||October 11, 1963|
|“||Portrait of a frightened man: Mr. Robert Wilson, thirty-seven, husband, father, and salesman on sick leave. Mr. Wilson has just been discharged from a sanitarium where he spent the last six months recovering from a nervous breakdown, the onset of which took place on an evening not dissimilar to this one, on an airliner very much like the one in which Mr. Wilson is about to be flown home—the difference being that, on that evening half a year ago, Mr. Wilson's flight was terminated by the onslaught of his mental breakdown. Tonight, he's traveling all the way to his appointed destination, which, contrary to Mr. Wilson's plan, happens to be in the darkest corner of the Twilight Zone.||”|
While traveling by airplane, Robert Wilson, thinking he sees a gremlin on the wing, tries to alert his wife and the flight crew, but every time someone else looks out of the window the gremlin hides itself near the engine so Robert's claim seems crazy. Robert admits the oddness of the gremlin avoiding everyone else's sight but not his. His credibility is further undermined by this being his first flight since suffering a nervous breakdown six months earlier, which also occurred on an aircraft. Robert realizes that his wife is starting to think he needs to go back to the sanitarium, but his more immediate concern is the gremlin tinkering with the wiring under one of the engine cowlings which could cause the aircraft to crash.
In response to his repeated attempts to raise an alarm about the gremlin, the crew gives Robert a sedative to stop him from alarming other passengers. Robert downs it with water, but does not swallow and secretly spits it out. He then steals a sleeping police officer's revolver, straps himself in to avoid being blown out of the aircraft, and opens the emergency exit door to shoot the gremlin.
Once the airplane has landed, everyone believes that he has gone insane. As Robert is whisked away in a straitjacket, he tells his wife that he is alone in his knowledge of what happened during the flight. However, the final scene reveals conspicuous damage to the exterior of one of the aircraft's engines, confirming that Robert was right all along about the gremlin.
|“||The flight of Mr. Robert Wilson has ended now, a flight not only from point A to point B, but also from the fear of recurring mental breakdown. Mr. Wilson has that fear no longer... though, for the moment, he is, as he has said, alone in this assurance. Happily, his conviction will not remain isolated too much longer, for happily, tangible manifestation is very often left as evidence of trespass, even from so intangible a quarter as the Twilight Zone.||”|
Twilight Zone: The Movie versionEdit
The episode was remade in 1983 by director George Miller as a segment of Twilight Zone: The Movie. Unlike Bob Wilson, whose credibility was compromised by a recent nervous breakdown in the 1963 version, John Valentine, played by John Lithgow, suffers from severe aviatophobia, giving the flight crew and other passengers added reason to disbelieve his wild claims, although they initially have more sympathy for John than Bob received in the original episode. Valentine is also a novelist. Valentine travels alone, unlike Wilson, who is with his wife. In this version, while flying through a violent thunderstorm, Valentine is in the lavatory trying to recover from a panic attack. The flight attendants coax Valentine from the lavatory and back to his seat. Valentine notices a hideous gremlin on the wing of the plane and begins to spiral into another severe panic. He watches as the creature wreaks havoc on the wing, damaging the plane's engine. Unlike in the 1963 version, in which in gremlin appears to unknowingly damage the plane out of curiosity, the movie gremlin intentionally damages the plane intending for it to crash. Valentine finally snaps and attempts to break the window with an oxygen canister, but is wrestled to the ground by another passenger (an off-duty security guard). Valentine takes the passenger's gun, shoots out the window (causing a breach in the pressurized cabin), and begins firing at the gremlin. This only serves to catch the attention of the gremlin, who rushes up to Valentine and destroys the gun. After they notice that the plane is beginning an emergency landing, the gremlin leaps away into the sky. The police, crew, and passengers write off Valentine as insane. However, while a straitjacketed Valentine is carried off in an ambulance, the aircraft maintenance crew arrives and finds the damage to the plane's engines complete with claw marks.
In October 2018, it was announced that Adam Scott was cast in an episode for the 2019 reboot series, entitled "Nightmare at 30,000 Feet". Other cast mates include Chris Diamantopoulos, China Shavers, Katie Findlay and Nicholas Lea. The remake removes the gremlin completely, though it makes a cameo as a doll that washes up on the atoll near the end, and instead focuses on a sinister podcast hosted by the enigmatic Rodman Edwards (voiced by Dan Carlin).
|“||Settling in for a 13-hour transatlantic flight to a land rife with ancient mysteries is Justin Sanderson. Mr. Sanderson's occupation is to uncover unbiased truth. But with an hour left before certain doom, he must ask the right questions of the right people. Landing at the truth this time will require an unscheduled stopover... in the Twilight Zone.||”|
Justin Sanderson is a magazine journalist, suffering from PTSD, who is boarding Golden Airways for a flight to Tel Aviv. While awaiting his flight he befriends Joe Beaumont, a former pilot for the company and alcoholic who suffered some undefined failure in the past. As he boards his flight, he discovers an MP3 from the Whipple Company (a homage to the episode The Brain Center at Whipple's) that has a podcast playing called Enigmatique, hosted by Rodman Edwards. As Sanderson begins listening to it, he realizes that Edwards is listing off certain details and events relating to the fictional Flight 1015, just moments before it will crash. Sanderson begins to panic and tries to make sense of the situation, but is told to calm down. He begins listening further and learns that the crash may have had to do with a former Russian gangster hiding under witness protection named Igor Orlov and quite possibly an air marshal hidden on the flight. Both attempts to interact or warn the related only result in annoying the passengers and crew.
Sanderson later learns that the last words uttered from the pilot before the crash is "Good night, New York". While trying to warn the pilot from saying that, the air marshal reveals herself and restrains him from causing any more trouble. Beaumont approaches him and admits that he believes him. Sanderson manages to get Beaumont into the cockpit where he beats up the pilots and takes control of the flight. As the crew is put to sleep due to lack of oxygen, save for Sanderson who was given a breathing can by Beaumont, Beaumont reveals his plan to "redeem" himself by crashing the plane to atone for his past failures. As he signs off with "Good night, New York", it dawns on Sanderson that he indirectly causes the crash.
Justin awakens on an atoll and learns via the podcast that all of the passengers survived after being found months later—except for Justin who is "still considered missing to this day." The survivors appear and blame Justin for ironically causing the crash. When he claims that he was trying to save their lives, they swarm over him to beat him to death as Jordan Peele picks up the MP3 player. The final scene pulls away to show the island and the wreckage of the plane.
|“||In his final moments, Justin Sanderson made the case that he did everything he could to avert disaster. But in the end, he was an investigative reporter unwilling to investigate himself, until it was too late. Justin discovered that the flight path to hell is paved with good intentions, and it passes directly... through the Twilight Zone.||”|
In popular cultureEdit
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The episode is considered one of the most popular of the series and parts of the plot have been repeated and parodied several times in popular culture, including television shows, films, radio and music:
- On the October 20, 1984 episode of Saturday Night Live, in a skit with guest host Jesse Jackson, Ed Grimley sits next to Jackson on a plane, sees the gremlin, and disturbs Jackson, who eventually walks off the set.
- In 1990, UK indie band Pop Will Eat Itself released their third album, Cure for Sanity, which features a track called "Nightmare at 20,000 feet". The track is said to be inspired by singer Clint Mansell's fear of flying.
- In The Simpsons episode "Treehouse of Horror IV" (1993) is a segment called "Terror at 5 1⁄2 Feet". It takes place on a school bus rather than an aircraft, and puts Bart Simpson in the role of Bob Wilson. An AMC Gremlin driven by Hans Moleman drives alongside the bus.
- American band Anthrax based the videoclip for their 1998 song "Inside Out" on this episode.
- In the 3rd Rock from the Sun episode "Dick's Big Giant Headache: Part 1" (1999), William Shatner makes his first appearance on the series. John Lithgow's character meets Shatner's character as he gets off an aircraft. When Shatner describes seeing something horrifying on the wing, Lithgow replies, "The same thing happened to me!" This references not only Lithgow's portrayal of the nervous passenger in the 1983 Twilight Zone remake, but also an earlier 3rd Rock episode "Frozen Dick" (Season 1, Ep 12, 1996) when he and Jane Curtin's characters were due to fly to Chicago to pick up awards before Dick panicked about something on the wing while the plane was still on the tarmac and gets them both kicked off the plane.
- The episode inspired the opening sequence of the 2000 slasher movie Urban Legends: Final Cut, directed by John Ottman.
- Keith McDuffee of TV Squad listed the gremlin as the ninth scariest television character, in 2008.
- On the March 16, 2010 episode of Saturday Night Live, guest host Jude Law plays Shatner's original role, while cast regular Bobby Moynihan is the gremlin on the wing of the jet. One scene features the musical guest Pearl Jam talking with the gremlin.
- Shatner had a cameo on the "Whoopi Goldberg" episode of Muppets Tonight on July 7, 1996. Miss Piggy is bothered by a Gremlin while riding in a jet Miss Piggy goes to tell another passenger...Shatner. Shatner looks at the Gremlin and nonchalantly says, "Oh. Him again." He claims that he's been complaining about the gremlin for years, but nobody does anything about it.
- In the Robot Chicken episode "Tapping a Hero", the episode is parodied in a sketch.
- In Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls, Jim Carrey parodies Shatner and his character in this film.
- In the horror film Flight 7500, a character watches the episode as part of the in-flight services, paralleling their own dire situation.
- In the Johnny Bravo episode "The Man Who Cried Clown" (original airdate: 8 December 1997), which is part of "The Zone Where Normal Things Don't Happen Very Often," Johnny sees an evil clown on the wing of the aircraft and is having difficulty convincing the pilots and anyone of its existence which even included a cameo by someone resembling William Shatner who quotes "Oh no you don't! I'm not falling for that again." When he catches and beats up the clown in the airplane's restroom, he is confronted and informed by the pilots that the clown in question and another clown were needed to keep the aircraft in balance during flight. The pilots and some nearby people beat up Johnny and make him take the incapacitated clown's place.
- In The Angry Beavers episode "Dag's List", Barry the bear is repeatedly launched into the air, landing on the wing of a plane owned by Dairy Airlines. Wally Wingert's secondary character, credited as "Passenger 57" (possibly a reference to the Wesley Snipes movie), exclaims in a halted, Shatner-style voice: "There's a bear... on... the wing!"
- In the movie Sharknado 2: The Second One, Fin Shepard checks the wing of the plane, and sees a shark on the wing of the plane. The flight attendant tells him to calm down.
- The 1995 Tiny Toon Adventures special Tiny Toons' Night Ghoulery features a segment named "Gremlin on a Wing", which parodies "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet", with Plucky Duck in William Shatner's place, accompanied by Hamton J. Pig in an aircraft, and a gremlin similar to that which appeared in the Bugs Bunny short Falling Hare.
- Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa features a scene where Mort, the cute big-eyed mouse lemur, begins ripping one of the engine panels, clearly in reference to the gremlin in the episode.
- The Lego Batman Movie features gremlins from the film Gremlins attacking a plane, a simultaneous reference to both the Twilight Zone episode, and the avionic history of the folk creature, the gremlin.
- In the Futurama episode I Dated a Robot, the main characters watch a TV show entitled The Scary Door, which features a gremlin damaging a plane along with parodies of other story-lines from The Twilight Zone.
- In the beginning of the movie Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa, Alex the lion gets scared by a gremlin on the plane wing, who turns out to be Mort (a mouse lemur) before getting swept away by the wind.
- In Comedy Central's "Key and Peele – Airplane Continental", Peele's character encounters a gremlin while looking out the airplane window, in reference to the "Twilight Zone" episode.
- STRYKE Percussion's 2018 program was entitled "Nightmare at 30,000 Feet" and followed a similar plot line to this episode.
- The 2018 animated movie Hotel Transylvania 3 features a scene in which Jonathan (Andy Samberg) sees a gremlin outside his airplane window.
- Canby, Vincent (June 24, 1983). "'Twilight Zone' is Adapted to the Big Screen". The New York Times. The New York Times Company. Retrieved May 10, 2015.
- Larnick, Eric (September 26, 2012). "Joe Dante, 'The Hole' Director On New Horror, '80s Favorites And More 'Gremlins'". Moviefone. Archived from the original on October 17, 2012.
- Haring, Bruce (October 26, 2018). "'The Twilight Zone' Adds Adam Scott For 'Nightmare At 30,000 Feet' Episode". Deadline Hollywood. Retrieved October 26, 2018.
- Groening et al. 1997, pp. 124–125.
- "William Shatner Trivia." Sci-Fi Updates, August 8, 2013. Retrieved: October 13, 2014. Archived September 17, 2013, at the Wayback Machine
- Nightmare at 20,000 Feet at TV.com Retrieved November 4, 2015.[dead link]
- Ottman, John. Urban Legends: Final Cut (2001). Audio commentary (DVD). Columbia Pictures Home Entertainment. (0:02:08).
- McDuffee, Keith. "All-time scariest TV characters." TV Squad, October 24, 2008. Retrieved: March 13, 2012. Archived October 12, 2013, at the Wayback Machine
- Holmes, Chris. "SNL Funny: 'Nightmare at 20,000 feet'." grayflannelsuit.net, March 16, 2010. Retrieved: October 13, 2014.
- Comedy Central (September 13, 2015). "Key & Peele - Airplane Continental" – via YouTube.
- DeVoe, Bill. Trivia from The Twilight Zone. Albany, Georgia: Bear Manor Media, 2008. ISBN 978-1-59393-136-0.
- Grams, Martin. The Twilight Zone: Unlocking the Door to a Television Classic. Churchville, Maryland: OTR Publishing, 2008. ISBN 978-0-9703310-9-0.
- Groening, Matt, Ray Richmond and Antonia Coffman, eds. The Simpsons: A Complete Guide to Our Favorite Family. New York: HarperPerennial, 1997. ISBN 978-0-06-095252-5.
- Zicree, Marc Scott. The Twilight Zone Companion. Los Angeles: Sillman-James Press, 1982 (second edition). ISBN 978-1-87950-509-4.